Monday, September 28, 2009
One thing that immediately set us apart was my unwillingness to work. I’ve always gotten through school without having to try. I never read my books, and spent minimal time on my homework. The worst part of it was, it worked for me. I got wonderful grades, and learned nothing from it but that I could skate by on zero effort. My sister toiled endlessly. One day my mom sat me down and shared some wisdom. “Sally, things won’t just come to you in the future. You’re not just going to be able to sit around and have things drop into your lap. So take a leaf out of your sister’s book, and explore. Put some effort into your life.” I love my mom, but she was half wrong. Sometimes, things just happen. Sometimes, research doesn’t require any sort of searching.
I didn’t expect to do anything that night but see a play. I expected the play to be fairly bad, maybe even terrible, but, as a writer, I’ve always enjoyed bad performances. They’re always a better story to tell. As I entered the modernized barbershop that had been gutted and wrenched into appearing theater-like, I tripped over the scuffed Doc Marten of the girl who would become my most interesting subject.
“Oh, excuse me. Sorry!” I accidentally defaulted to English as I pardoned myself from this faux pas. To my surprise, she responded in flawless American. “Oh hey man, no problem!” She touched my hand, as if apologizing for what was certainly my error. I swerved to avoid an enormous black woman as I walked toward my seat, only to discover that this small American girl was following me. Well, all right then. I offered her the seat next to me and watched her sit down into one of the rusty folding chairs that had been provided for us. That night, my hindquarters were vastly less bruised than my psyche.
First, she was a close-talker. Her face was only inches from mine, and her large black glasses that I suspected were worn only for fashion purposes slid down the bride of her nose faster than an accident-induced apology. But, she was pretty. Not just pretty, but attractive. If I were a lesbian, I thought, she would be my type: small, and with hair like an unwashed pixie. I thought about sharing that thought with her. No. That would be awkward.
“So what brought you here?” she asked.
“Well, my friend suggested this play to me, and I’ve always loved theater. What about you?”
“So last night, right, I was at this party—I’m staying with this anarchist feminist queer collective where there’s twenty-five women and one bathroom. I know, right? Anyways, so I was at this dance party, which was craaazzyy maaan, and I was dancing with this girl who was an incredible dancer, I mean God. Amazing. So, she invited me to her play tonight.”
Well that sure was a lot of information that I didn’t expect. “Awww, is it a date?” I responded as if nothing in her response had jarred me. Apparently, to me, living in an anarchist feminist queer collective was as normal as dipping your fries I a Wendy’s frosty. But, I was certainly uncomfortable. Wasn’t I?
“I’m not sure if it’s a date. I mean, I hope so.” Her lips curled into a lopsided smile.
“I hope so too! So, what have you been up to in Berlin?” I leaned in further. She didn’t lean away.
“Well, man, Berlin is amazing. This is awesome, man! So the other night I went to this other play, I’ve always loved the theater too, right, and this one was soooooo interesting man. So the first act, this nineteen-year-old porn star dressed up like a baby gets up on stage. And we’re all cheering, right, and oh, it was amazing. She just, peed on us.”
“Wh-what? Did…. Did it get on you?” My mouth had been agape, but quickly closed at the mention of a urine shower. The only thing I could think to do was to keep her talking. Surprisingly, I yearned to hear more about her life. Never had I met a person who would volunteer such information, or enjoy, let alone attend, any activity that involved excrement as a form of entertainment. Where the hell does one even hear of such places?
“Oh no, I mean I was way far back, but it was so interesting. Anyway, the second act, another woman came up on stage carrying a duffel bag. She opened it and then walked off stage and we were all like wooaah what’s gonna happen? And then this woman in a burka comes out of the duffel bag and gets totally naked. Then, she brought out this dildo and yelled, ‘Who wants to hear me come?’ and we were all like, ‘yeaaaaaahh!’ Oh man, it was so intense.”
Surely this must be a dream. Surely things like this don’t actually happen. And surely, if in fact they do, then I certainly wouldn’t talk to anyone who would attend these sorts of gatherings. Yet I was riveted. It was like in the Middle Ages where dentists used to perform root canals in the streets and thousands of people would gather to watch. Morbid fascination.
“Have you ever seen a cervix?” She cocked her head to the side.
“Um, well actually yes, I’ve been to the gynecologist, so…” Nothing in me told me to react harshly to her questions. Nothing told me to say anything like “What are you talking about?! Who ARE you? I would really appreciate it if you didn’t touch my leg, and please stop talking about heinous public sexual activity.” I just, kept responding normally. Apparently blatant honesty comes easier than I expected.
“Oh, well then you know. Our insides are just amazing, aren’t they?” Then, she talked about the vagina for about five minutes, all the while seeming as if she were talking about a music idol, or the pope.
“Yeah, they’re great.” Suddenly unable to take anymore, I steered the conversation toward my experience in Berlin thus far. I’m sure she found it shockingly devoid of sexual pee-formances and lesbian dance parties, but she paid rapt attention to my descriptions of Berlin, and even asked questions. She was the most confident person I had ever met, and her honesty and openness were infectious. A little part of me felt uncomfortable in my own skin only because I knew that I would never be as real as she. Maybe, I thought, I am real. Perhaps I’m just different, and I enjoy different things. Maybe I’m just too normal.
After we concluded our conversation, the squeaky makeshift lights dimmed, and I sat back in my seat. It creaked. I was consumed by thought for the rest of the play. I couldn’t believe that my research topic presented itself to me so purely, and so accidentally.
I came to Berlin to study social borders. Before coming, I was curious about the issue of personal space, and the issue of the psychological barrier that prevents strangers from looking at or speaking to one another. My plan was to walk through the crowded streets, bumping in to passersby and noting their reactions. I did do so. It was interesting research, but even running in to strangers felt distant to me. I wasn’t involved enough. I knew that if I wanted to study social borders, I needed to get more social. I knew that I would only truly understand what makes people uncomfortable if I made myself uncomfortable.
Luckily, a man grabbed my crotch on the street. I walked down the streets of Istanbul, perfectly aware that my shorts showed much more than the acceptable amount of leg. Having lived in Turkey before, I expected at most some jeers or perhaps even brief butt-pats, but I didn’t expect a fedora-clad old man to mosey on up to me and get a hearty squeeze in. Well excellent. Now I’m uncomfortable. What was strange though is that after he did his deed, I just stood there in shock. I didn’t yell at him the only Turkish insult I know (“Hey! You’re a rude individual!”), nor did I shout or make a noise of surprise. I just stood there with my mouth agape, watching him disappear, satisfied, into a sea of safe, pants-wearing Turks.
When I am uncomfortable, I don’t act uncomfortable. This makes me wonder: is acting uncomfortable a conscious choice? Is acting uncomfortable merely a façade? Do people act uncomfortable just to seem more normal? Surely, if other people had been listening to the conversation I had with the girl at the play, I would have responded to many of her questions with a much more shocked attitude. I may even have left, and I certainly would have made fun of her and her shenanigans behind her back. But people didn’t listen. So I was just a naked version of myself.
Of course, I’m one hundred percent all right with nudity, both figurative and literal. But consider the classic nightmare: you’re naked in front of everyone. I’ve never had that nightmare, but I know that for many people, being naked is the worst kind of hell. In Istanbul, the girls decided to go to a Turkish bath for the evening. I had been to one before and therefore wasn’t the least bit shocked when we entered the marble steam room and spied a very old (and very naked) woman in the corner holding her phone up with one hand and scratching herself with the other. After being shunted into a changing room with Katie, I removed my clothes and covered myself with a towel. I walked into the steam room and noticed all of the girls glancing nervously at the naked women around us. They hesitated to take off their towels.
I removed mine and began to splash myself with hot water. The other girls followed my cue, and many of them seemed pleased to be doing so. Some others did not. A couple of girls kept their hands across their breasts the entire time, embarrassed to show themselves to the public. Watching them, I decided that it was possible to be actually uncomfortable, and to have that discomfort manifest itself physically. The girls’ eyebrows were curved upwards, and their lips pursed. They moved their bodies as if they were walking through custard, so that their jiggly parts wouldn’t jiggle. They turned themselves away from as many people as possible. But even while actual discomfort legitimately exists, it’s difficult to distinguish actual discomfort from discomfort that’s just for show.
In my sixth grade class, there was a girl named Audrey. At one point, we were very good friends. Every afternoon we used to spent hours on a website called Neopets that was considered deeply un-cool. We never cared. Then it was Thursday. We were in the changing room after gym class, and I started to talk to Audrey about our afternoon gaming plans. She laughed and looked around, shifting her eyes toward the tall bra-wearing girls in the corner. “Sally, don’t be ridiculous. I would never play those games.”
I knew that Audrey was just hiding the fact that she enjoyed such a nerdy pastime so that the cool girls would like her. Sometimes, it’s obvious when discomfort is just a veil. Frequently, however, it’s impossible to tell whether someone is consciously or unconsciously uncomfortable.
I used to spend afternoons on the Berlin U-bahns attempting to make my co-riders uncomfortable. I would talk loudly to no one, or sit very close to other Germans. Most of the time, they would shift to the side, away from me. Other times, people didn’t move. I tried everything I could to find a correlation between those who moved and those who didn’t. There simply wasn’t one. There wasn’t even a clear majority. In my search to find a clear-cut answer, I found nothing but the fact that people are all different, and that we’ll never be able to determine what makes people act the way they do, because more often than not, they don’t even know why.
Why did I act normal around the girl at the play when I felt strange? And why didn’t I act out when I had my lady parts invaded by a wandering Turk? To discover the reason why Germans shove on the U-bahns and yet can’t sit close to each other is impossible. Some things are just strange. I noticed a similar issue in Turkey. When we were at the hamam, the Turkish women were perfectly comfortable being naked around each other. They lay spread-eagled on the marble slabs without a hint of shame. Yet… they can’t wear shorts in public? It’s shameful to wear almost nothing, but perfectly acceptable to be naked?
Perhaps I didn’t get to do enough research to discover cultural causes of these social dynamics. As far as I can tell though, there are stereotypes about the Germans that hold water. Yes, they shove and also scoot away, but as my research showed, when confronted individually by a social abnormality, Germans react completely uniquely. There’s no way to tell whether this reaction is conscious or unconscious. What I did discover, though, is that people are shockingly accepting of social abnormalities. When I acted strangely in front of large crowds of people, the individual people dealt with it by commiserating with their peers. They made faces at each other that expressed discomfort, pain, or humor. When I acted strangely in front of people who were completely alone, they seemed completely okay with it. I’m convinced that the only thing that creates an abnormality is a person’s conviction that everyone else finds it abnormal.
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
The bathroom floor felt like a relief. It was smooth and cold and smelled like mint, bleach, and the color white. Mmm… ice cream. It was nice to lie down after walking so much, but I didn’t want to miss the tour of our university, so I decided to give myself a tour. I pulled myself up off of the tile to peer out of the window that framed the courtyard outside. I spied six pigeons. One landed on the windowsill and cooed at me. Adorable! I felt sick and lay down again.
I stared out of our balcony at the macaroni and cheese building across from us. It had little hot dogs in it. It looked like legos, and Spain. The steps leading up to each window reminded me of science projects I had made in 8th grade—trying to make DNA out of noodles and glue. After teetering on the edge of my balcony and y reasoning, I decided after moments of yearning for the greener grass that I would rather be able to stare at this building than live in it.
Ice cream doesn’t look nearly as delicious in America. We’ve got this hardened goo that claims to be fresh and scrumptious but in actuality tastes like the air let out of bubble wrap. I’m pretty sure Germany’s ice cream is made of clouds and angels. It’s like each little bucket of ice cream was once a tiny ocean that stopped mid-ripple just to appear supple and whipped. One of them was called “blue flavor.” I ate it anyway.
I was pretty sure that it shouldn’t have cost five Euro, but despite the astronomical price, I purchased it because I knew it would be like a Christmas Market in my mouth. I hadn’t had a currywurst in about five years, so I was excited for it to again be a part of my life. The little sausage was perched happily on top of a bouquet of fries that were just crispy enough on the outside to accent the warm pillowy softness of the interior. The ketchup that drenched the top of my meal (Danke, keine Mayonnaise bitte) was the precise shade of Catherine’s lipstick. I ate it anyway.
It never gets old to look up and see a monument. Especially when Storm Troopers are outside of it. I suspected that I was in a touristy area when I caught myself sipping the Starbucks chai that apparently my body had ceased to function without. My suspicions were quickly confirmed when I spied my favorite Star Wars enemy posing with smiling tourists in front of the Brandenburger Tor. Suckers. What a waste of a Euro. I totally have to go over there.
I don’t know what the hell he thought he was doing. I mean, I paid money to take a picture with a small Italian man wearing a Storm Trooper costume, but at least that guy put effort into his appearance. This guy was just… blue. His job appeared to be sitting on a bench and being generally cerulean. I glanced at him as I passed (as one cannot help but glance at a large, blue fellow) and he slurred something at me in German that I assume was some variant of Smurf language. He didn’t deserve my Euro.
It should be included in our national anthem that in America, sauce is free and water doesn’t cost a red cent. I’d taken that for granted for too long. I sat down at a corner café and picked up a small hamburger. Without thinking, I grabbed a couple of ketchups from a glass canister to the left of the cash register. As I twisted on my heel and walked foolishly away, a loud German voice barked at me in disapproval. “Bezzaaaaahhlen!” Pay me, please. For ketchup? Where I come from, ketchup is free, like air, going to the bathroom, and hugs. For a brief moment, I missed America.
Berlin felt enormous. It felt like a never-ending city, but was paradoxically contained within a small circulatory system of u-bahn lines. Each time I followed and exited a vein like a rogue cell, I felt like I was in an entirely new city. It was weird to see Berlin in such an unconnected manner. My mental map had as many blank nooks and crannies as an English muffin, and I didn’t mind. Still, in my last week, I made it a point to be the butter than connected the holes, and explore Berlin without the help of fabulous public transportation. My feet hurt.
My mom always called them Seven Day Wonder Pants. The crotch sags almost to your ankles and the sides poof out and catch the wind as you walk. They’re extremely comfortable and considered attractive to some, but because of my mom’s joke, I can’t watch people wearing them without chuckling. “Sally, see those pants? They’re called Seven Day Wonder Pants.” I furrowed my brow. “Why?” “Well honey, because you could go to the bathroom in them for seven days straight and they wouldn’t fill up.”
I was used to people asking me questions about Turkey, and most of them, like “What language do they speak here,” “What’s that sign say?” or even “Where’s the bathroom?” I could answer. Sadly, I had no idea why the Blue Mosque was named thusly. It’s not that blue. It’s not blue on the inside either. Notably, the bluest thing about the Mosque is the people inside it, who are forced to cover up their arms and heads with bright blue scarves. Curious.
What the hell was that creature supposed to be? Clue 1: it was yellow. Alright, so it could be a bee who’s had it’s stripes removed after it was demoted a rank in the military, or it could be a banana monster. Clue 2: it had two antennae. It probably wasn’t a banana monster. Bee hypothesis still valid. Clue 3: it wore a suit and smiled. Apparently it was a stripeless bee morphed with a cartoon human on some sort of upper. Excellent mascot, Turkcell.
Sometimes I don’t think we’ve advanced socially at all. I was sitting on the U-bahn and I noticed a black guy sitting casually with his feet up on the seat across from him. An old, pruny woman in a flowered shirt shuffled up to him and hissed, “Get your feet off of that chair.” “I can put my feet anywhere I want,” he said. “No, you people have dirty feet.” My mouth was agape. “Excuse me?” he choked. He pulled his feet slowly down off the chair, deciding that it wasn’t worth the empty, impossible argument, looked out the window, and sighed. She dusted off the chair and sat down.
On two separate occasions, I was almost run over by a bike. Both times, it was in front of the same apartment. Both times, I was eating the same ice cream. Both times, the girl giggled, apologized, and smiled at me. It made me comfortable to have this sort of routine in a country where I didn’t quite feel at home. It’s strange how repeated occurrences can make people feel so instantly comfortable, even if they’re negative ones.
It was probably the most enormous bumblebee I had ever seen. It was just sort of lumbering along by my feet, not attempting to fly. I brought my face close enough to it to smell its little motor running, and it did not even appear to want to flee. I smiled at it. Why isn't it flying? Maybe it's too heavy to fly. I hope all of its bee friends didn't make fun of it. I walked on to the flea market, excited to buy some German keepsakes. Bee market.
Thursday, August 27, 2009
It was tiny, green, and pleasant. Its little explosions of chocolate burst like little festivals in my mouth, creating new holidays with their ingenuity and finesse. It was a mint chocolate chip muffin, and it was mine. It’s might be a little bit pathetic that its taste is the most concrete image I retain from my visit to Paris, but to hell with conventional appreciation of culture—I love fluffy goodness. I’d love to talk about all the wonderful things I saw in Paris. The architecture was curvy and ye olde, the streets were cobblestoned in the cobblestoney way I’ve so come to love, and the people weren’t nearly as haughty and anti-American as I had imagined they would be. Strangely though, Paris didn’t inspire me to write. It inspired to me to think about Berlin, and it inspired me to think about the meaning of art.
Who the hell says what art is? Apparently, shooting arrows into the façade of a building is art. Whoops, I just spilled my jam on the carpet. Better not clean that up: IT’S ART. Is art just art when the right people say it is, or does art need to convey a message? And furthermore, does the public need to understand that message, or can anyone just pee on a canvas and display it in a gallery? I went to the Pompidou center in Paris, and that was just about the coolest museum I’ve ever seen. I’ve never actually been able to stare at a painting before, and I was able to. I examined every stroke, every medium, every tiny scribble and bead of the artists’ sweat. And then I turned the corner and saw the bane of my existence: ‘art.’
It was large, blue, and unpleasant. Monochrome in Blue, it was called. I could have painted it in eight minutes. With my left foot. When I was eight. Yet, something told me I should respect it. I promptly asked this something: why? Something furrowed its brow, gestured towards the painting, and said, “because it’s in a museum.” Someone, somewhere, thought it was fantastic. But who the hell says who the hell says what art is?
In Berlin I was met with even fewer answers. Art was arrows in a wall. Art was a stuffed fox attached to a car door. Art was a gold plated street sign. Excuse me as I go vomit in a hat and display it in a gallery. Still though, I hate to be an art snob. I understand that many of these pieces make statements, and that many of these things actually move people. What I can't seem to understand though is how art is defined. Maybe I'll never know, or maybe I've learned that art needs no definition. How profound. How artsy.
Saturday, August 15, 2009
“Well mommy, I’m getting a pillow to place over the roots so that the other kids won’t hurt themselves.” My mom sent me back outside without giving me the pillow, determined to make me roughhouse and think only of myself. To this day, this side of me remains. For some reason I can’t help but constantly be concerned about others. Therefore, it’s difficult for me to be in Istanbul with friends and not constantly be thinking about whether or not they’re having a good time. I’m perpetually thinking of things to tell Katie and Kelsi about language, or things about fashion or culture to share with Cassie or Natalia, or ridiculous and terribly obnoxious Turkish sentences to teach John. I hardly think that this detracts from my own experience, but today something struck me.
During lunch, some people came with me to a Turkish place just off of where Orhan dropped us off. After eating, we all pulled out money to pay, and Joe said he would pay for me. I asked why, and he said it was because I had been doing so much for other people, and that he could tell I was a little bothered. I felt immediately both grateful and terrible. It terrified me to think that I could somehow be putting off an aura that implied I was bothered by others’ questions. I wasn’t at all. What bothers me is repeating things. Joe reminded me that repetition would have to occur in a group this big, and I agreed. What I need to do is stop being so concerned about whether or not others are having a good time, and concentrate on what an adventure this should be for me. This trip has been like a flashback of my life up until now—little tastes of everywhere I’ve lived. Images and smells have been smacking me in the face like dreams I had forgotten and now suddenly recall.
Walking along the water last night with Katie, I realized what smells remind me of Turkey: strawberry pipe smoke, clove cigarettes, and overwhelmingly flowery perfume. It’s just so strange having taken all those things for granted for all those years, then realizing how much I’ve missed them. I’ve missed the incredibly friendly people the most. I don’t think I’ve had to pay for food on the street once this trip. Nice old men just… give people things here. It’s just incredible to me how much people here live in the moment, constantly talking and smiling, not afraid to approach you or touch you or ask you questions. During the tour today when we were suddenly surrounded by the peanut gallery of local Turkish boys, I couldn’thelp but be more fascinated by their gathering than the information I was hearing.
Yet, as much as I love at here, and as at home as I feel, I am not a Turk. I’m not quite American either, nor am I German. I’m a strange, unbalanced mix of the three. Amergerturk. I can literally pick out elements of my character that stem directly from living in all of these places. American me loves barbeque sauce and refuses to pay for ketchup. German me hates it when things or people are late and prefers walking to driving. Turkish me doesn’t fear cars. Sometimes I wish that I were just one nationality, but really, I couldn’t be luckier. Taking this little taste test of my life has really helped me realize how important it is to be introspective and maybe even once in a while, just a little selfish.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Amused but still shifty, I turned away from him and escaped to musical funland. He morphed away to another seat like the impatient crazy that he was, and stepped in a newspaper that had evidently been placed over someone’s vomit to prevent people from stepping in it. Mr. Jackson slipped on the newspaper, revealing someone else’s stomach cornucopia, and, terrified, exclaimed, “AIDS!”
Excellent characters like these aren’t confined to Seattle. In Berlin, I apparently still possess my crazy-magnet. I was waiting for an U-bahn the other night when a man crumpled down in the seat next to me. He began to talk to me in English immediately, as if he were greeting an old friend rather than accosting a random teenager. “Where are you from?” He probably wouldn’t know Savannah. “Canada.” I replied automatically. “Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah.” He dragged out that awful grating noise for about six minutes. It was difficult to pay attention to him because he spoke so slowly. Imagine a very small ent wearing suspenders. He then began a very long story about God knows what—it was too quiet and too slow to pay attention to or understand. He noticed. “Dur horst mir nicht zu.” “You’re not listening to me.” I was taken aback. He didn’t say it like he was upset, more like he was interested. Like, it was curious to him that someone wouldn’t find his story about some young Canadian gentleman terribly fascinating. Still, I have an overwhelming need to be polite always (thanks, mom), so I said “Nein! Ich hore dich zu!” He grabbed my hand, but the gesture didn’t make me uncomfortable. His eyes bore into mine and he said “Ich hore dir zu.” Touche, transient. Thanks for correcting my grammar.
He continued on with his grand tale of nothingness when a woman across from me started to babble in our direction. My vagrant put his hand up to her face and said, in English, “Excuse me, don’t interrupt our conversation.” I chuckled. Then, when he was mid-sentence (which was always), the train arrived. He simply said “My God.” And put his hand briefly on my knee, pushed off of it, and walked toward the train. And he never looked back.
Kelsi told me afterwards that I dealt with him very well. I considered this. For some reason this tiny little ent-man didn’t make me too uncomfortable. Even when he touched me, I didn’t feel threatened. We’ll probably get married. But in all honesty, I discovered that talking to strangers makes me more comfortable than talking to people that I know. First impressions are some of my favorite things in life, so to me, there’s nothing better than meeting new people every day. If I don’t have a reason to feel threatened, then I just don’t. I just can’t get over how interesting it is to hear other people’s stories.
Sunday, August 9, 2009
With the obvious exception of animals in plight, the only thing that makes me cry is people. I cry if people I love are upset, or in trouble, and I even cry if people I don’t even know are in horrendous situations. Therefore, when I heard that the week would be spent learning about German history, immigration, and the victims of the Nazi regime, I was prepared for the Sally Sputters. But when I arrived at the Topogrophie des Terrors, something strange happened: I felt absolutely nothing.
I stared at the images of soldiers, the images of books burning, and the heart-wrenching images of Kristallnacht, and thought about nothing but Christmas songs and what I was going to eat for dinner that night. I was so disgusted with myself that I started to seek out images that I knew should disturb me. In the middle of the timeline, there was a blown up image of Jews about to be hanged. I walked over to it, preferring masochism to blissful stoic ignorance. Specifically, I wanted to see the faces of the people about to be hanged. I hoped that by looking at their expressions, I would somehow understand how it feels to understand death. With my nose almost touching the fabric, I peered into the eyes of the victims. None of them looked sad. Perhaps, I thought, they were already dead. Perhaps they no longer had enough energy to care about living, to care about caring.
But observing their faces didn’t even make me cry. I scrutinized their expressions like a curious scientist rather than the weepy artist that I usually am. I thought about my upbringing: perhaps I’ve been jaded about WWII, having learned about it more than most children. Still, it continued to frustrate me that I couldn’t get upset about one of the most horrible travesties in history. Then I thought: is wanting to get upset over something like this just selfish? Do I want to be upset about this just so I don’t feel like a bad person, not because I actually feel sympathy? I decided then to abandon my quest for a heart-wrenching picture, only to stumble upon something that spoke to me.
On my mother’s car, there’s an upside-down rainbow triangle—a symbol of what makes her unique in the world. Today, the upside-down triangle is the symbol of homosexuality. I was interested to see that gays under the Nazi regime were forced to wear a pink upside-down triangle. I wondered: is this where the symbol stems from today? Is the symbol of homosexuality just sort of a “Fuck you, we’re proud!” to the Nazis? And then, as I continued to ponder, I realized that nothing else had spoken to me because I couldn’t relate the tragedy to anything that I’ve directly experienced in my life. Gay culture I’m familiar with, so it made sense that the one thing I would be interested in was homosexual Nazi-culture.
Then, as the days progressed and we began to learn more and more about the lives of the minorities under the Nazis, I became more and more immersed in my sadness. Certainly the culmination of this progressing sympathy was the visit to Sachsenhausen. The tour itself wasn’t tear jerking at first—I’ve always been morbidly fascinated by stories about concentration camps, and have visited several. Therefore, nothing our guide said surprised me at first. Again scientist-like in my observations, I listened to as many victims’ stories as I could, but even then I couldn’t connect with their plights. They still seemed so fictional. Watching someone tell a story on a television screen is hardly witnessing his life. And as a generation we’ve been so exposed to television as fictional entertainment that it’s often difficult to feel like anything we’re told is real. So, I listened to the stories, read the articles, learned as much as I possibly could and later reiterated the stories to my loved ones, fascinated by the how cruel people could be.
Later, when Adam took us down into Station Z, I had what I considered to be my first real contact with labor camp victims. Now, I have a problem with blood in general. I can’t look at my blood when it’s being drawn, I get woozy when I cut myself, and I can’t stand to see others bleeding. To see bloodstains of innocent victims was probably one of the most memorable images of my life so far. Finally, what I had been searching for: something tangible, something non-fiction, something incredibly jarring. I let myself stare at the stain, and was careful to not exaggerate my own feelings. I knew that the stain should upset me, but I didn’t let that thought make me upset. I wanted to feel my body reacting to this image. I just, looked at it. I felt like I wanted to vomit, and I felt like I wanted to cry. So I left.
I left. I felt sick when Adam gave us that appreciation speech at the end of the tour, talking about what wonderful people we are to come to a labor camp in our free time, and how the experience will surely live on with us. We won’t forget it, he says. But I think that I will. I think that as a defense mechanism, I’ll simply not think about it at all. And that made me feel about three inches tall. Stop it, I thought, when he kept thanking us, I don’t deserve to be thanked. The rest of the day, it felt insulting to smile. My lips didn’t really know what to do, and sort of hung there loosely on my face, painted into a lazy half crescent of forced detachment. I guess I’ll only know in time whether or not I’ll forget the experience, or choose to do so, whether consciously or unconsciously.
In Berlin, I found this happiness in a disco ball at my first German poetry slam. Little did I know that as I walked into the room and was immediately freckled in light, my vision of the disco ball winking at the crowd was the most poetic thing I would experience that night.
I didn’t expect much from German Slam Poetry. I’ve always found Slam Poetry to be rather pretentious, and too depressing for my taste. I was more interested in the sort of people that attended these events in Germany. I wondered: would they also wear plaid and glasses sans glass? Would they also smell like incense and wear their shoes down to the nub? I also wondered about the audience dynamic. At the poetry slams I attended in Seattle, the crowd often made rather unique chants like “YES.” or “WHAT!” that always made me chuckle. But what I discovered was that German crowds, in addition to preferring cheerful, angst-less poetry, remained mostly silent en masse. Occasionally, they’d laugh at a performer’s witty story, but there were no cries of “TELL ‘EM GIRL” or “YOU KNOW,” which I had become so fond of back home. Additionally, I call it “poetry,” but what the performers were reading was far from verse. It seems that we attended some sort of amusing short story-reading gathering.
It was nice to practice my German and sort through the thicket of fast spoken word to pick out the humor that the performers tried so desperately to convey. Naturally, I picked up less than I expected, half because they were talking so quickly and half because I sure did fall asleep in my chair, and by chair I mean couch that we stole from the lobby. Fortunately I didn’t sleep too much because between performances a blinding and obnoxious light shone out on to the audience, and by audience, I mean just me and four or so people who surrounded me. So, every once in a while I was awoken by tiny beads of sweat dripping down my neck and a slight light-induced migraine. And so my first group experience in Berlin culminated in dizziness, curiosity about German youth culture, and a slight neck cramp from having rested my head on my shoulder for forty minutes. Still, I can’t justify ever complaining about anything in Berlin—I’m so fortunate to be here. Everything here is beautiful, efficient, and interesting, and I feel like as a group, we’ve lived this week to the fullest.